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mark hume

Sutton Lake, near Wilmington, North Carolina, isn't a place many British Columbians have heard about.

But it might not be long before it is cited in court documents here, because of a study that quantifies the cost of replacing fish killed by pollutants.

The 1,100-acre lake was created in 1971 on land owned by Duke Energy to cool water coming from the Sutton Steam Plant. To form the lake, the power company had to dam a creek, which the state government approved only on the condition the reservoir was developed as a public fishery.

The company agreed – and soon had created a place where the fishing was so good it became the focus of bass tournaments.

Sutton Lake, however, was also polluted with selenium leaching from coal ash stored in nearby waste pits. And that's why Sutton Lake is relevant in Canada, where selenium pollution produced by coal, uranium and bitumen extraction is of growing concern.

Dennis Lemly, a leading expert on selenium poisoning and an associate professor at Wake Forest University, reported in a study last month that fish in the lake are being killed and deformed by low but chronic levels of pollution.

He collected more than 1,400 fish from the lake and found them suffering from an array of abnormalities – including twisted spines, distorted mouths and bent tails. He attributes the mutations directly to selenium.

Dr. Lemly also calculated that many fish died at early stages of life because selenium concentrates in fish eggs and deformed young fish are easy prey for predators.

Selenium is a naturally occurring chemical element, but it can be harmful in even very tiny amounts.

It is of concern in B.C. because selenium is released into the environment by coal mining and it has already been detected in the Elk River in the southeast corner of the province, and in the Peace River watershed in the northeast.

In northern Alberta, selenium has been found in the Athabasca River, downstream of the oil sands, where First Nations have been complaining about deformed fish for several years, although no cause has been determined.

What might make Sutton Lake and Dr. Lemly's study of interest to the courts is that he monetized the value of toxic impacts, calculating the cost of replacing the fish that he concludes had been killed by selenium pollution.

"Loss of fish due to toxic effects of water pollution imparts several well-recognized and calculable economic costs," he writes. "These costs may include ecological, recreational, commercial, subsistence, property value and aesthetic components. It is important to understand that each fish carries multiple values and when that fish is lost, all of those values are lost."

Dr. Lemly looked at what it would cost the state to replace various species of fish, per pound, via hatchery production.

"The resultant dollar cost of poisoned fish amounts to $4,502,420 for the 2013 sampling year," he writes. "It is scientifically and toxicologically reasonable to expect that poisoning rates were similar in preceding years when tissue selenium concentrations were at or above current levels."

The bottom line: The cumulative cost of replacing the fish killed by selenium poisoning in little Sutton Lake is $112-million.

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Duke Energy knew that selenium was leaching into Lake Sutton, but did not stop it, so last year a coalition of environmental groups filed notice of a lawsuit. They are seeking an order to clean up the lake – and they plan to put before the court Dr. Lemly's study.

It is probably only a matter of time before something similar happens in B.C. or Alberta, or before Environment Canada, which has been monitoring selenium levels, brings charges for polluting a watershed. When that happens, the courts may look to the Sutton Lake research for a model in calculating how many fish died, and what each was worth.

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